Why Certain Foods Cook Better On A Charcoal Grill

Charcoal grilling is our go-to cooking method for recipes like clams with garlic butter sauce and tri-tip with blackberry mustard – both of which finish to perfection in minutes. But experts generally regard lower and slower as the sweet spot. As celebrity chef Bobby Flay has pointed out, charcoal grilling is ideal for those willing to devote their time and passion to the process. The one thing that can readily distinguish the results of this cooking style is the deeply imbued layers of smoky flavor it can impart. 

Culinary consultant J. Kenji López-Alt notes that the essences of whatever you're preparing inevitably drip onto the hot coals, creating "new aromatic compounds" that return to the food (via Serious Eats). The only question is whether the difference is noticeable enough to make this preparation method worth your effort — and this brings us to why certain foods are better suited for cooking on a charcoal grill than others.

Bigger flavor has more time to develop in larger foods over charcoal

Charcoal grilling is inevitably more time-consuming than gas because it takes longer for the coals to heat up and cool down to the appropriate temperature than it does to set your gas grill to a desired ambient temperature. But the luxuriously complex, layered flavors that charcoal can impart in food, in general, tend to shine more prominently with some ingredients than others. And when it comes to deciding which meals to cook on a charcoal grill, size matters, according to Shawn Hill, the Pitmaster behind The Grilling Dad

In fact, as far as Hill is concerned, "If you're using a charcoal grill, go big or go home." He explains that it's "all about the smoky, slow-cooked flavor" and that essence takes time to develop. Accordingly, standard burgers and filets won't benefit as much from what charcoal grilling can do as much as a whole brisket, bird, or even a whole leg of lamb. "So, go for large cuts of meat like a whole chicken, hearty beef or pork roasts, or thicker cuts of steak," Hill advises. The same is true for vegetables; heftier veggies also have more time to take on that unique smoky flavor for which charcoal grilling is famous: Think potatoes, corn, and even eggplant, among others.